Chris Mooney replies here to a post at the Daily Caller. Mooney highlights a great many interesting things, and his post is worth reading in its entirety, but I am going to ramble on and on in response to what he writes here:
Munro then goes on to another Pew survey, which found that liberals were more likely than conservatives or moderates to block, un-friend, or hide someone on social media for reasons relating to politics. Desmogblog (http://s.tt/1aKNR)
And also, his thinking as outlined in this paragraph:
It may be that conservatives are posting a lot of things that liberals find offensive, and getting un-friended, but liberals aren’t posting as many things that conservatives find offensive. I don’t really know if that’s what’s going on here. But I do know—and this will be discussed further soon—that conservatives have very different moral emotions than liberals. In liberals, egalitarian emotions are absolutely paramount. So posts being perceived as sexist, racially insensitive, anti-gay, etc, would be very likely to trigger very strong liberal responses, including blocking, banning, etc. Desmogblog (http://s.tt/1aKNR)
I find these sorts of conflicts interesting, where liberals, who are famously (statistically) more Open, seem to be very unOpen to certain sorts of people in certain situations. It was the not-entirely-welcoming responses of (some) Liberal Quakers and Unitarian Universalists that sent me on a quest to understand why in the world my manner of dress (traditional Quaker plain dress) was so activating to (some of) them. I would not have to say a word to provoke a disagreeable response, and being a shy, small (5-1, 100 pounds) young-looking woman in a big bonnet, provoking people is not something I much do in other settings. Stares I get. A seemingly pathological need to be disagreeable and provoking, no.
I found Jonathan Haidt’s work [http://righteousmind.com/] pivotal in discovering that this response was likely a moral response, though that was never the language they used. In fact I credit Haidt’s writings with teaching me to tread gently, to bear the discomfort I provoke with as much love and kindness as I can muster, and meet anxiety with affection. It is what I try to teach Friends, how to realize when one is provoking a moral response, how to notice when a moral response is being provoked in oneself, and how to respond openly and helpfully, suggesting we all assume that most everyone wants to eventually arrive at a condition of mutual affection and respect.
Unfriending and UnFriending
The unfriending described above seems equivalent to behavior I have seen in a Liberal Quaker meetinghouse. A traveling minister (who also wears traditional dress) and I attended a relatively large liberal meeting. In unprogrammed Quaker meetings, all assemble in silence until someone feels “led” to speak, then that person rises, speaks, and sits down again. The meeting then falls back into silence until someone else feels led to speak. As this Conservative Friend rose to give ministry, two people walked out, before she had even said a word. After she began speaking, two more people walked out. I can’t resist calling that “unFriending.” [I should mention that while Liberal Friends are almost universally politically liberal, the same is not true of Conservative Friends, who are conserving tradition, but whose political viewpoints run the gamut from Tea Party to Occupier.]
I think what is going on here is that Liberal Friends perceive a moral violation is about to occur. Gary Sherman, Jonathan Haidt and James Coan have an interesting (unpublished) article called “Nazis really are disgusting: Psychophysiological evidence for sociomoral disgust.” I was able to get a copy by requesting it through Jonathan Haidt’s publication webpage. It describes the visceral physiological response people have to a moral violation, in this case the racist and anti-Semitic language of some neo-Nazis. Haidt et al believe this response is a moral emotion they call disgust that they relate to the moral foundation of Purity/Sanctity, and describe a certain set of psychophysiological signs of what they believe is sociomoral disgust. I perceive this moral emotion to be at work here. My theory is that our presence may well have invoked a disgust/revulsion response. (As Mooney alludes to above, the orthodox view within Moral Foundation Theory would be that the Care/Harm foundation had been violated. I don’t really quite accept that view, which I discuss here.)
The Moral Emotions
Chris Mooney asserts above, perhaps more loosely written than he specifically believes, that “conservatives have very different moral emotions than liberals.” I don’t want to set Mooney up as too much of a straw man here, but I would like to use what may very well be slightly sloppy word choice as a starting point for my own thinking. From my perspective, it would be more accurate to say that conservatives and liberals have distinctly different triggers for their moral emotions, but they clearly have the same repertoire of moral emotions available to them.
Some background from Gary Sherman and Jonathan Haidt’s “Cuteness and disgust: The humanizing and dehumanizing effects of emotion:”
“By definition, any emotion that expands or contracts the moral circle would qualify as moral.” (p. 245)
“The moral circle refers to those entities—including humans, nonhuman animals, or even inanimate objects—deemed worthy of moral concern and whose distress triggers compassion (Singer, 1981). More generally, an entity is a member of the moral circle if harm to that entity is morally proscribed.”
“In terms of its origins, disgust motivates the avoidance of offensive things. In social contexts (e.g., as a property of individuals), it becomes a mechanism of social avoidance.”
“Disgust is the main emotion related to the ‘purity/sanctity’ foundation (see also the ‘ethic of divinity’ in Shweder, Much, Mahapatra & Park, 1997).”
So some “candidate” moral emotions, by no means exhaustive:
Negative (contract moral circle): Disgust, schadenfreude, anger, shame, guilt, contempt
Positive (expand moral circle): Love, gratitude, compassion, moral elevation, the cuteness response, distress at another’s distress, respect
(Sources: “Cuteness and Disgust” (p. 247), and The Moral Emotions, Haidt, 2003)
I don’t believe conservatives and liberals actually experience different moral emotions. I accept, as I understand it, the work that shows that conservatives tend to more obviously experience core disgust, but I don’t think that it means, as is sometimes suggested, that liberals experience less disgust in toto, that they are somehow genetically or evolutionarily adapted to experience less disgust. I just think their disgust mechanism is evoked by different things, and in fact their “rider” (in Haidt’s characterization of human cognition as rider and elephant) overrides some of the visceral disgust responses they do have, which can itself be overridden by the use of alcohol, become unavailable during implicit association tests, and disappear under “cognitive load.” I think it is possible to argue that we may all have similar levels of core disgust at similar things, but (statistically) some have learned to override those responses.
That does not appear to be the orthodox view, for example here, here, and also in Chris Mooney’s book The Republican Brain on pages 107-108. The explanations I see emphasize a sort of cognitive laziness on the side of those who are conservative, rather than describing a more trained, robust or even overactive rider, which seems an equally valid theory. Liberals apparently have to work really hard to keep their moral viewpoint engaged. I do have to wonder if cognitive load may influence the fact that the economically disadvantaged tend to be more conservative, due to their not actually having the mental and emotional resources to pull off the liberal political ideological enterprise. Try working three jobs and raising four kids and see how that compares to alcohol and other sorts of cognitive loads. But setting that aside for the moment, I do believe that liberals do marshall the full range of moral foundations on behalf of their liberal ideals (such as authority and sanctity), and that these foundations just look different when invoked by a liberal.
Liberals and the Moral Emotion of Disgust
Though Haidt et al, (who I consider the experts on the intersection on morality and disgust and from whose work I have learned everything I know), might very well disagree, it seems clear to me that liberals are showing a disgust response to conservative political ideas, just as they show it to me and my manner of dress. It is my perception that liberals have more disgust/revulsion responses to ideas than conservatives, while conservatives have more disgust/revulsion responses to behaviors than liberals.
Liberals seem disturbed by the ideas they perceive behind my manner of dress. I am, in my manner of dress, presumed to hold unacceptable views that are homophobic, misogynist, and authoritarian, just for starters. I provoke a disgust response because of what it is believed I believe, what my manner of dress is perceived to represent, what I am perceived to represent. In my experience, if I wore immodest clothing to a Conservative Quaker meeting, their concern would be about my behavior (exposing too much skin) and not so much the ideas behind it. (Though perhaps wearing a pro-atheism t-shirt might be more equivalent. That would be interesting to test.) The liberal’s “rider” may denigrate the ways conservatives are groupish, but I don’t actually see them being any less functionally groupish, having any fewer moral emotions, or any less of a sense that there are people (like conservatives and bullies) who are decidedly and deservedly outside their moral circle. Where Mooney (and Haidt, perhaps) perceive less loyalty among liberals (not following their leader without question), I perceive great loyalty to ideals, and a function as a societal bully detector.
Cultural Worldviews and Motivated Reasoning versus Moral Foundation Theory
It was Dan Kahan’s (et al) work on motivated reasoning that was my next pivot point in finding the intersection between my unacceptable manner of dress and some very negative responses from those of the liberal persuasion. He accounts for groupishness and non-groupishness in his Cultural Worldview group-grid scales, though that is not his purpose, and paints a broader picture of a fairly balanced way of looking at the conflicting groups and the ways they engage in motivated reasoning at every opportunity. No one is inoculated by superior scores on Openness. No one is immune. It is part of our universal human nature.
It has been more useful in my work in trying to bridge the cultural divides among Friends to talk about the coherent, comprehensive and completely satisfying worldviews that are widely held in US society. It is a matter not of having different moral emotions, but realizing we do actually all have the same moral emotions, and that we can trigger and be triggered unintentionally and without malice. When I draw out Dan Kahan et al’s group-grid scale, the first thing everyone, liberal or conservative, wants to know is where good and evil are located on that layout. I spend the next hour explaining why they do not reside there. Real understanding begins when they realize that no one particular group has a lock on truth on all matters of concern. Each group has things that it sees clearly and correctly, and each group has things that it is blind to and causes it to operate outside of reason, truth and fairness.
My biggest problem with Haidt’s work is that it is working in really rather the opposite way of what I believe he had hoped: people are using it to defend themselves and attack the other moral viewpoints. When I have put it forward, rather than bringing mutual understanding, and enlarging moral circles, it has just caused people to say, see, they really are deeply and innately immoral. That may not be a scientific critique, but I am looking for something that works to open eyes and hearts to the real humanity of the “other” side. Haidt (et al’s) Moral Foundations Theory doesn’t quite accomplish that. It worked that way for me, and Mooney appears capable of holding an asymmetrical theory of conservative versus liberal moral functioning and still find much to value in conservatives, but in my experience, that is not the usual response. And that is what makes me feel that it must not be true enough. My religious conviction, frankly, is that if it were true enough, the good would be raised up. It would be a useful tool for the moral outreach work I do. I am convinced the thinking behind Moral Foundation Theory has deep pockets of truth in it, and many useful concepts, but as a broad theory I have had to mostly set it aside.
In The Republican Brain (on page 80), Mooney asserts that Haidt’s theory posits that liberals and conservatives are equally biased by their moral intuitions and that “it is hard to say one group is inherently more biased than the other.” But from a podcast debate with Dan Kahan, my notes say that Mooney argued that Haidt did find asymmetry in the moral foundations of liberals and conservatives. I have to agree with the latter. Saying whole groups of people invoke moral foundations that others don’t is essentially asymmetrical, even if their tendency to bias based on their moral foundations is symmetrical.
So Moral Foundation Theory has proven, in practice, to be a sense-of-superiority/schadenfreude factory, for both sides, including the inevitable suggestion that one or the other side has genetic/evolutionary/innate/God-given superiority. Although he argues for asymmetry in The Republican Brain, Chris Mooney explicitly rejects these sorts of notions of innate superiority in his book, which I was glad to see. And while he does see evidence for genetic difference, he sort of ridicules people who suggest this science is leading to some sort of “new eugenics.” But I must offer up that, on the ground, when I take the asymmetrical info like this to the people, everyone “goes there.” And quickly.
It has been a delight to watch Dan Kahan and Chris Mooney debate whether or not there is “asymmetry” between conservatives and liberals on motivated reasoning. Read more here. I think asymmetry is a problem. Difference I readily accept, but asymmetry I find leads to trouble.
Openness to Experience
One of the things to catch my eye in regards to asymmetry, beyond motivated reasoning, was Mooney’s extensive discussion (in The Republican Brain) of the superior liberal scores on Openness to Experience in the Big Five Personality Test.
From the Wikipedia entry for Openness to Experience (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Openness_to_experience):
- Fantasy - the tendency toward a vivid imagination and fantasy life.
- Aesthetics - the tendency to appreciate art, music, and poetry.
- Feelings - being receptive to inner emotional states and valuing emotional experience.
- Actions - the inclination to try new activities, visit new places, and try new foods.
- Ideas - the tendency to be intellectually curious and open to new ideas.
- Values - the readiness to re-examine traditional social, religious, and political values.
What I see here are several things that are likely to “trip up” conservatives, particularly Aesthetics and Values. For instance, the “appreciation” of art, music and poetry are for “high-brow” versions. One does not get the sense, from the questions, that it is about appreciating country music or liking bucolic scenes painted on circular saw blades. So, certain cultural viewpoints get an automatic downgrade here, with no obvious connection as to whether or not the person would be open to ideas that directly contradict their own, which is what most commentators seem to mean when they talk about this personality trait.
Similarly, the Values section is about being open to re-examining social, religious and political values, but the fact that readiness to re-examine traditional social and religious values are so prevalent, and would clearly not come naturally to a conservative, the addition of readiness to re-examine political values would seem to be window dressing. One could score well on this trait and still be entirely dogmatic on issues of political values, and one could be entirely open to other political values and score poorly. In the end, it appears to me to be most accurately measuring how open a person thinks one should be, not actual openness. I think it would be more accurate to say this is the Liberalness scale, and be done with it. (Interestingly, according to the Wikipedia entry for The Big Five Personality Traits: “Some disagreement remains about how to interpret the openness factor, which is sometimes called “intellect” rather than openness to experience.” No citations, so I have no idea who is disagreeing with whom.)
So lets look at some sample Openness questions, from the Wikipedia entry for The Big Five Personality Traits:
- I have a rich vocabulary.
- I have a vivid imagination.
- I have excellent ideas.
- I am quick to understand things.
- I use difficult words.
- I spend time reflecting on things.
- I am full of ideas.
- I am not interested in abstractions. (reversed)
- I do not have a good imagination. (reversed)
- I have difficulty understanding abstract ideas. (reversed)
What I see here are statements where the self-report will necessarily include a value statement. There is no objective way to determine whether a person has a rich vocabulary, but when one sees this question, and one personally values rich vocabularies, one will be much more likely to claim to have it. I’m not saying these questions are not capturing something, but what I think they are capturing are what people value in themselves and others, and these valuations can be culturally determined in significant ways.
I see nothing in these questions that would necessarily mean that a person scoring well here would functionally be more open to ideas that are antithetical to their own, that they would engage in less demonizing and be more open to people they are actually in conflict with. I repeatedly see people writing as if this personality trait, openness to new experiences, and the word “open-minded” were synonyms. A high score on this trait might mean that one is more open to all kinds of things, but being more open-minded in the usual sense of the word is not meaningfully captured in this broad personality trait. Inigo Montoya comes to mind for me here. “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means” (The Princess Bride, 1987).
As a mild example, from the Wikipedia entry Openness to experiences, Religiosity and spirituality: “Religious fundamentalism has a somewhat more substantial relationship with low openness. Open, mature religiosity and spirituality on the other hand tend to be associated with high openness.” (Emphasis mine) There seems to be a cultural worldview slip showing here.
And this is a problem. As this blogpost from Wray Herbert, Where are all the conservative social scientists?, shows, there is every reason to consider that the cultural worldview (or the moral foundations) of the researchers may be biasing the questions they are asking, the way they are asking those questions, and the results they are prepared to accept as valid and reliable. Kahan et al’s work on motivated reasoning predicts it, as Mooney acknowledges here as well as in his The Republican Brain.
Broadening our Moral Circles
For the record, I don’t believe either liberals or conservatives have any claim to superiority on anything meaningfully understood as open-minded on the whole. Individuals within those very broad worldviews will be open-minded, though they will be coming at it from different directions and from different experiences, and seeing in it very different hopes. Others will not. My concern is the demonizing and dehumanization of anyone, whatever their ideology. Chris Mooney takes up a similar concern, though he words it differently, at the end of The Republican Brain.
Mooney wonders, when it seems so clear that society needs both those with liberal traits and those with conservative traits, how have we ended up so dysfunctional. I have a theory: too big, too mobile, too few opportunities to trust and be trusted. In the small town I grew up in there were a great many conflicts, but when the big snowstorm hit, and everyone had to pitch in, political differences receded. Real human value was perceived. It was just easier to notice that while her political views may be disagreeable, she is a good person, helpful in a pinch, a whiz with the snow shovel and organized enough (and kind enough) to have brought along a thermos of hot cocoa and extra mugs. We are losing our cohesiveness as Americans because we are losing our need to be friends with people we don’t agree with, and in our disagreements, we are beginning to confuse difference of opinion/viewpoint with a person’s innate goodness and badness. We just aren’t having the experiences that would prove the equal humanity of ideologically different people.
My desire is to help people expand their moral circles to include people of differing political viewpoints, to reduce the sense that one’s moral circle should not include those of a differing moral viewpoint, to ameliorate the loss of learning about our mutual basic human decency through casual contact by mindfully putting it forward. I find myself deeply concerned that as each political side contracts its moral circle to exclude differing political viewpoints, our existing conflicts will necessarily turn uglier.
I will end with some pertinent moral psychology from Jane Austen’s Persuasion:
Well, Miss Elliot,” (lowering his voice,) “as I was saying we shall never agree, I suppose, upon this point. No man and woman, would, probably. But let me observe that all histories are against you—all stories, prose and verse. If I had such a memory as Benwick, I could bring you fifty quotations in a moment on my side the argument, and I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman’s inconstancy. Songs and proverbs, all talk of woman’s fickleness. But perhaps you will say, these were all written by men.”
“Perhaps I shall. Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.”
“But how shall we prove anything?”
“We never shall. We never can expect to prove any thing upon such a point. It is a difference of opinion which does not admit of proof. We each begin, probably, with a little bias towards our own sex; and upon that bias build every circumstance in favour of it which has occurred within our own circle; many of which circumstances (perhaps those very cases which strike us the most) may be precisely such as cannot be brought forward without betraying a confidence, or in some respect saying what should not be said.”